TORONTO – At this point in his career, Nate Pearson isn't exactly a prospect anymore. Now 24 years old, he has some major-league experience both in the regular season and in the playoffs. While the Toronto Blue Jays haven’t officially handed him a starting role, he’s certainly a frontrunner for a rotation spot.
And yet, as he prepared for his Grapefruit League debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday, he still felt some nerves.
“I feel nervous before every game, no matter what it is,” Pearson said. “I was feeling nervous before my live BP. This was the first game of spring, so obviously there are going to be nerves with that, but I tried to use my nerves to my advantage. It’s still a game at the end of the day and it’s still fun. I still love playing it. It’s challenging sometimes and sometimes we think we’ve got the game figured out and then the game will let you go through some troubling times.”
This time, Pearson came away with some positives even if he walked a batter and allowed an unearned run to score in his lone inning of work in a 2-2 tie at TD Ballpark. His fastball velocity was impressive with an average of 98.4 m.p.h. and a top speed of 99.9.
But beyond the raw power, Pearson is also attempting to challenge hitters this spring and trust that his stuff will elude their bats. On Monday, just 16 of his 28 pitches were strikes. The next time he pitches, he’ll look to improve on that ratio.
“I just wanted to simply attack the zone and throw a lot of strikes,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t throw a lot of strikes, but the outcome was still pretty decent and it’s still the first outing of spring facing a team, so it’s a good starting point and we’ll work from there.”
Most important at this stage of the spring is health, of course, and Pearson said he feels strong physically. Last summer he made only four starts before a flexor strain sidelined him from Aug. 18 to Sept. 25. It’s currently unclear how many innings he’ll be able to pitch in 2021, but the Blue Jays will monitor his fatigue levels and workload as the season progresses.
On defence, Austin Martin helped Pearson avoid further trouble with a leaping catch at shortstop on a line drive.
“Off the bat, I thought ‘Oh man, that’s trouble,’” Pearson recalled. “But I turned around and he was already coming down with it, so I thought ‘Oh man, that’s pretty impressive.’ He’s got some ups and some good reflexes.”
Like Pearson, Martin’s considered a potential core player for the Blue Jays. But the 2020 first-rounder also made two errors in his Grapefruit League debut, one throwing and one fielding.
“Not much you can say about that, but that’s the first time I’ve seen him miss balls like that,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “I’m not going to put too much stock into two errors.”
To this point in spring, most of Martin’s reps have come on the infield, but in the coming days, the Blue Jays will also have the 21-year-old track fly balls in the outfield. That’s not a punitive response to the two errors, but rather an attempt to build his versatility in advance of his first full season as a pro.
Meanwhile, starter Robbie Ray was encouraged after an outing in which he threw 24 of his 26 pitches for strikes over two innings of work.
As he prepared for his eighth big-league season, Ray made the decision to throw off a mound less and give his body more of a break. His thinking: instead of overworking himself before it counts, he can save his body for later in the season, when the Blue Jays expect to be contending.
"I almost feel like sometimes you can get burned out during those August-September days," Ray said. "I felt like starting a little later this year to give myself more time to get ready and actually use spring training to get ready."
With 26 more Grapefruit League games remaining, there’s still plenty of time for that before opening day.